Reza Aslan spoke out against Jeff Zucker, accusing the CNN boss of cancelling his travel show “Believer” in an attempt to appease President Donald Trump after Aslan posted an expletive-laden tweet against him in 2017.
The tweet in question came in June in the midst of the London Bridge terrorist attack, during which Trump tweeted that the attack justified his travel ban that he called “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Aslan responded by saying that “This piece of s*** is not just an embarrassment to America and a stain on the presidency. He’s an embarrassment to humankind.”
“This is a man–and an administration–who very explicitly said that Islam is not a religion but a political philosophy, and that it is not protected under the First Amendment in the United States because it’s not a religion,” Aslan told The Daily Beast. “I know who this man was.”
Aslan was pressured by CNN executives, producers, and public calls across the political spectrum to issue an apology. Aslan says that he did not want to send an apology, but was afraid that he would be punished by losing “Believer,” a show he always dreamed of making. CNN not only owns the show, but also the premise, which involves Aslan traveling to different countries and meeting with people of various religions, including an episode that prompted backlash from Hindus for focusing on a sect that consumes human brain as part of a ritual. Despite this, the show received strong ratings upon its premiere in March 2017
Aslan published the apology and thought the issue was resolved, only to receive word four days later that Zucker had decided to cancel “Believer” after three months on air.
“The response from the production company was, ‘Wait a minute, what? We thought this was over. He apologized. You accepted the apology. This was four days ago.’ And the quote that was delivered to me [from Zucker] was, ‘I have no choice in the matter. I gotta get rid of your boy,’” Aslan recounted. “I was flabbergasted. It just didn’t make sense to accept an apology, wait four days, and then in the middle of one of the biggest news days of the year to just simply cancel it.”
Aslan says he was told that Zucker cut his show in an effort to appease Trump and prevent him from cutting CNN off from access to both him and White House officials. In 2017, AT&T was attempting to complete its acquisition of Time Warner, a deal that Trump threatened to block unless CNN fired Zucker, though he had no authority as president to do this.
But Aslan believes the move was far more vindictive, saying that Zucker promised him that he would get the rights to “Believer” back if he agreed to stay quiet and not add fuel to the backlash from conservatives over his Trump tweet. Instead, he ended up in negotiations with the network that lasted nearly a year, to the point that by the time he got the show back, interest from other networks to pick up “Believer” had vanished.
“The process was so deliberately dragged out, that by that point any excitement from the networks who wanted to take show in order to make a statement had pretty much died down,” he said. “And I’d moved on. I’m excited that people will get to watch the show now, because I’m very proud of it, but this was a deliberate plan to make sure the show could not be revived in the aftermath of this controversy.”
A CNN spokesperson told The Daily Beast that “we did not move forward with [“Believer”]because of his inappropriate tweet and we parted ways amicably. While we owned the series, Reza’s agreement was with Whalerock, the company that produced it. Once we gave Whalerock the rights and paid what we were responsible for, it was their decision on what to do with the series.”
But “amicable” isn’t how Aslan would describe his relationship with CNN, saying that “cable news is garbage, and you’re better off avoiding all of it.” He also compared his ousting to the complaints about “cancel culture” made in the letter signed by over 150 pundits and commentators on Harper’s, which have been echoed by TV personalities like Bill Maher who have made prejudiced comments on their shows.
“It’s just another tool to make sure that people in the minority keep their mouths shut,” he said. “These are just ways of making sure that certain voices that are troublesome and that undermine the system that we live under are silenced–and silenced in the name of ‘civility.’”